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‘I try not to let it scare me:’ COVID-19 emergency to end, but anxiety lingers

“Look at how many people we’ve lost,” Renee Johnson said in an interview in Nubian Square Saturday. “It’s not over. The virus will never be over.”John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

More than a year ago, Renee Johnson lived through a brutal bout of COVID-19. Though vaccinated, she was sick for a month and faced a lengthy recovery as she returned to work as a security guard. Her symptoms were so severe, she often called her mother for emotional support.

Since the pandemic began, the 34-year-old Boston resident has lost family, friends, and neighbors, she said. She continues to worry for the safety of her loved ones, especially her 10-year-old son, who has also recovered from the virus.

“Look at how many people we’ve lost,” Johnson said in an interview in Nubian Square Saturday. “It’s not over. The virus will never be over.”

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A day after the World Health Organization declared an end to COVID-19 as a “global health emergency,” people like Johnson acknowledged the pandemic milestone, but said the virus remained a threat.

More than three years after COVID-19 erupted, killing nearly 7 million people worldwide and causing nearly three-quarters of a billion cases, worldwide numbers of daily new infections and deaths have fallen to levels not reported since early in the pandemic, according to WHO data.

The WHO’s director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said Friday that the worldwide death rate has decreased, and immunity has grown due to vaccinations. But he warned against complacency, and said that the virus “is still killing and it is still changing.”

Dr. Tom Frieden, a former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned in a Twitter post that the pandemic remained a threat.

“WHO has declared the global health emergency over, but Covid hasn’t gone away,” Frieden said. “Precautions are still necessary for many, and we must fix what the pandemic has broken and exposed in our health system and society.”

In another sign that public health officials are easing off emergency status for the virus, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC’s current director, announced Friday she will step down June 30.

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The WHO declaration comes just days before federal and Massachusetts states of emergency are expected to end May 11. Most of the state’s major health systems plan to end, or at least substantially change, their masking requirements the following day.

In Massachusetts, state health officials have reported 22,602 people have died due to COVID-19, and there have been more than 2 million total cases since the pandemic began in early 2020.

The number of recent deaths — 14 — and new cases — just shy of 900 — reported in the past week are far below the numbers recorded early in the pandemic. But they signal that COVID-19 remains a health threat.

Dr. Sabrina A. Assoumou, an infectious disease specialist at Boston Medical Center, said in an interview that people should take advantage of the resources available to protect themselves that were unavailable when COVID-19 first appeared.

Among those tools are COVID-19 tests, vaccines, and Paxlovid, a drug that can be a “game changer” for treating cases of the virus, said Assoumou, who is also a professor of medicine at the Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine.

“There are many lessons that we’ve learned along the way,” she said. “And we really need to make sure that we apply those lessons, so we can have a better outcome in the future.”

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But not enough people know about their options, she said. Right now, about 200 people a day are dying from COVID-19 in the US — many of whom are age 65 or older, she said.

“There’s still a lot of people dying, and there’s still room for improvement,” she said. “I really wish that the benefits of Paxlovid, the benefits of vaccination, and the importance of boosters were more promoted, especially for people who are at high risk for severe disease and complications” from COVID-19.

On Saturday, there was little public acknowledgement of the latest milestone in the fight against COVID-19 in Boston. There was no parade, no parties, no gatherings of elected leaders to mark the occasion.

At Downtown Crossing, a thin crowd of pedestrians strolled through the shopping area; among them were Christina Kao and her 13-year-old daughter, Alice, who paused for a moment of window-shopping outside the Boston Discount Jewelry Exchange.

Christina Kao (left) and her daughter Alice, 13 from Revere were window shopping in Boston.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Kao, 32, said her daughter grew up during the pandemic: She was a fourth-grader when it struck, and she spent much of the past three years in remote learning as her schools responded to the crisis.

Her daughter is still dealing with anxiety from those years, including the rash of racist attacks on Asian people. She wears a mask in public, and she is still adjusting to life with COVID-19 as a lingering factor, her mother said.

Kao was uncertain whether putting an end to pandemic-era emergency responses signals a turning point for the virus.

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“I hope that it is over. I doubt that it is,” Kao said.

Anthony Zawadzki, 23, said the virus remains a worry for him. He’s vaccinated, but still contracted COVID in December, he said. The illness caused him to miss a week of work at his job at Logan International Airport.

“I understand it’s still a thing,” he said of COVID-19. “I tried to be careful; I got it anyway.”

Now, Zawadzki said he is learning to live his life in a world with COVID-19.

“I try not to let it scare me,” he said.


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.